Halloween Horror: Alien: Covenant (2017)
Viewing Alien: Covenant this fall, shortly before seeing Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner (short take on 2049: I liked it a lot) and in the context of October Halloween viewing, put two elements of Scott’s 2017 film into clear focus for me: the first is the role of horror in Scott’s two films in relation to the other films in the Alien series; the second is Scott’s clear interest in the android characters and their quest to understand themselves. Despite its dismal box office reception this past summer, Alien: Covenant is a hugely entertaining science-fiction horror film that entwines genre thrills and the grand evocations of big questions in a satisfying package.
While Scott’s previous Alien prequel film, Prometheus, was more overt in embracing the grand cosmic horror that drives the series and acting almost as an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, Alien: Covenant more closely resembles aspects of the original film in its story. After a brief prologue featuring David from Prometheus discussing the search for humanity’s creator with his own maker, Guy Pearce’s Peter Weyland, the film jumps forward to 11 years after the previous film.
The Covenant of the title is a spaceship full of Earth colonists in cryosleep on a multi-year journey, overseen by an android, Walter (an upgraded, while emotionally “muted” version of David, also played by Michael Fassbender). The command crew is awakened from cryosleep when the ship hits a solar flare and the captain (seen only in video scenes as played by James Franco) is killed in the accident. The weak-willed, second in command, Oram (Billy Crudup), assumes authority and, when they detect a signal from a previously-unknown planet nearby that seems to be perfect for colonization, makes the decision to take the ship to the planet rather than remain in transit for several more years.
This move is strongly opposed by the captain’s widow, Daniels (Katherine Waterson), an objection that, given what the audience knows about the Alien series, will prove to be well founded. The dynamic between Daniels and Oram is not unlike the one between Ripley and Dallas in the original film, and the film replicates Ripley’s emergence as the film’s central character in a similar manner with Daniels.
The film reworks the plot of the original film, exchanging the “space-truckers” of the original with colonists (recalling the doomed colony of Cameron’s sequel Aliens). Also, rather than being bound by professional relationships as in the original, the crew of the Covenant, in fitting with its title, are a group of married partners (as an aside, it’s interesting that this film received so little attention for its portrayal of a matter of fact same-sex married couple, when the far less overt treatment of same-sex couples in Beauty and the Beast and Star Trek Beyond received tons of press coverage). While this choice to make the crew all married may seem like simply another variation on a theme common in the genre, it serves a clear thematic purpose, linking marriage and its attendant binding “covenant” structure to the search for the origin of life and the covenantal relationship (or lack thereof) between David and his creator and the Engineers as the creators of humans.
This marriage of genre and theme is what Alien: Covenant does so well. The horror eventually emerges, as expected, but, in keeping with Scott’s other Alien films, the film is relatively patient in getting to the horror, reveling in the audience’s knowledge that things will go wrong without jumping right in. Once the crew reach the planet, and find several of their colleagues infected with alien spores that result in small, pale xenomorph-like creatures bursting from their bodies, the film shifts gears into survival mode. Fortunately, a caped and armed David bursts in to save several of the crew including Oram, Daniels, and Walter, and takes them back to a massive abandoned citadel.
It is at this point that the film’s departure from being a mere retread of the original film becomes clear. Having escaped at the end of Prometheus, David reveals that he and Elizabeth Shaw, who died soon after arriving, found the planet of the Engineers from the earlier film. David will serve to be a kind of Miltonian anti-hero, as he attempts to seduce his double, Walter, into his grand plan (a scene where he teaches him to play the flute is perhaps the standout acting moment of the film, and one of the best of the year). To give away all of David’s revelations about the nature of the Engineer’s abandoned citadel and the alien spores themselves would spoil some of the films most pleasurable revelations.
Suffice to say, Scott’s original title for the film, Alien: Paradise Lost, would have been very appropriate, though Covenant is less on the nose, and still implies the relational bond between creator and creation. In contrasting the given creator/creation covenant with the chosen bond between married couples, the film definitely has more implicit faith in the existential choice of marriage than the circumstances of birth to deliver meaning and a sense of purpose.
Alien: Covenant is a film that is ultimately nihilistic in its exploration of the themes I pointed out in the first paragraph. The horror is one of Lovecraftian realization rather than invasion, in that it is about the realization of truths about one’s own origin—of one’s creation, relationship to others, or even the situation one finds oneself in—rather than invasion. In his two Alien prequels, Scott shows that he is mostly interested in this cosmic horror, and never planned to revisit the “haunted house in space” milieu of the original film. Visually, Alien: Covenant is wonderfully vast and ambitious, never shy to try to show things that other films would simply never attempt, whether it’s the glorious scale of the Engineers’ dead citadel or the graphic dispatching of the crew.
In its merging of a pulp visual sensibility with grandiose exploration of characters trying to play god, I was reminded on more than one occasion of Jack Kirby’s New Gods comic books as much as I was H.P. Lovecraft’s Eldritch horror. My only reservation is in the resolution of Elizabeth Shaw’s fate from Prometheus, which while horrifying, isn’t entirely satisfying, but fortunately Scott is so good at the scenes of naive crewmembers being dispatched by various versions of the famous xenomorph, it’s hard to complain.
While the focus on the android characters, especially David, makes one wonder why Scott didn’t return to the world of Blade Runner, this film is so enjoyable that I hope he does get around to making one more film and completing a trilogy of stories about David and the xenomorphs. Alien: Covenant is bloody good horror science fiction that is both fleet in pace (only two hours) and thematically rewarding. While it may be a minority opinion, I found it one of the most satisfying big budget films of the year so far and a perfect Halloween viewing.
Alien: Covenant (2017, USA)
8 out of 10
Directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper; story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green, based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; starring Michael Fassbender, Billy Crudup, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Amy Seimetz, Carmen Ejogo, Demián Bechir, Guy Pearce, James Franco.